Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Level Design: One Simple Idea

Level design is both extraordinarily complex and mind numbingly simple. In essence, a level must be aesthetically pleasing and functional for gameplay.  Simply put, it must look good and it must let the player play the game. Unfortunately, that is not a straightforward task. To demonstrate some of my thought processes, here's some of the steps I've taken on a level I'm currently working on.

As I've stated previously, I always try to start with some kind of idea or map sketch. For this level, I started with a map. (Forgive my pictures here, as I've quickly sketched these on the computer because I don't have a scanner) My first idea looked a little like this:

Draft map

This is a simple design, a dual level area, with a stream off to the side. A few extra buildings would added here and there. The main problem is that this just didn't inspire me. Functionally it works, and there is the potential for it to look good, but it lacked "one simple idea". What I mean is the idea of a single view within the level that inspires you, and hopefully the player. You may end up with more than one of these per level, but you should make sure you have at least one of these in your mind before start building the level in an editor.

I attempted to try and rework this idea a few times, but I couldn't manage to get something that really appealed to me. The thing to do in this circumstance is to throw it away. If you have to work really hard to make something feel right, you're better off trying a completely new tack. You may end up returning to this idea at a later date and turning it into something you do like, but you need to be willing to throw away ideas that don't work. So I drew this instead:

Take 2

I came up with this idea after wandering around in some bushland and combining different fragments of the landscape that I'd seen. The four trees in the middle on the edge of the cliff were my "one simple idea", and the view of a tower on the hill in the corner was another. Aesthetically I had more ideas that appealed to me and that I wanted to create. The only real problem I felt was that there could be a bit of backtracking, so I decided to add in a set of steps on the right hand side, which both would prevent that from occurring and also potentially add in another nice visual cue.

I'm part way through developing the level now, so I won't really show much of it, but here's the view that started as the core idea for this level. It doesn't look that great because it's using default lighting and isn't decorated much, but the kernel of the visual appearance I had in mind is there.

One simple idea

The final thing to remember is that fluidity in the design as it translates into an actual level is necessary. My final level will not end up looking exactly like the map as it was originally drawn, but the key visual and functional elements will still stay there. I've already made adjustments in terms of locations and tweaked the structure of the level, but the core layout for movement and the "visual cues" that I want to have present will all be there in the release version of the level.

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